What Lord Sewel gets up to is none of our business
It's time to get on the scandal bus. Lord Sewel has been photographed taking cocaine with prostitutes. He's dressed up in a leather jacket with a bra, in a manner which suggests he is relaxed about having a good time. He sits about chatting politics with women of the night. Let's all have a laugh. We can all gather round with the reliable English mixture of protestant moralising and lewd childish jeering and have a good old time at his expense.
It's time to dust off the weird, faded lexicon of the sexual scandal. Lord Sewel gets the "disgraced" moniker – a phrase which implies, but has no actual connection to, legal judgement. It is the tabloid editors who decide when someone is disgraced, although they obviously never choose to apply it to themselves. He has apparently been "cavorting" with prostitutes in a drug-fuelled "romp". No-one ever seems quite sure what a romp entails. Does a kiss entail a romp, or does it need to be full-on sex? It is like a perfectly-preserved bit of 1980s rubbish, dusted off periodically for a period in which it is completely out of place.
The prostitutes in these stories – who are often part of the sting – are usually the subject of sneering coverage as well. Hacks laugh at how the peer didn't realise he was getting stung when they wanted to talk politics. Because, you know, prostitutes' tiny little heads would hurt from all the big adult male stuff.
Even when part of the sting, prostitutes are often subject to the same threats as the subject of the story. The Leveson inquiry was told that after the Max Mosely sting, a News of the World reporter threatened one of the prostitutes that the newspaper would run photos of her and reveal her identity if she didn't back its Nazi claims. We act like we only judge the powerful man, but it’s not true. Once the moral winds blow, they chill the powerful and the powerless alike.
These occasional spasms of pearl-clutching horror do us all a disservice. Lord Sewel may have done things wrong personally. If he were my husband I would be extremely displeased. But let's not pretend that he has somehow let us down as a country or any more of that sanctimonious guff.
As a matter of fact we should have a grudging respect for the fact Lord Sewel maintained a pithy wit and good political judgement late at night while under the influence of drugs and drink.
Pretty much all his analysis was crushingly accurate. He branded David Cameron "the most facile, superficial prime minister there's ever been", Boris Johnson a "public school upper class twit" and Alex Salmond a "silly, pompous prat". Tony Blair "went really seriously wrong towards the end", Jeremy Corbyn was a "romantic idiot", Andy Burnham "goes whichever way the wind is blowing", Yvette Cooper was "okay but not strong" and Liz Kendall, whose name he could not remember, "a Blair supporter who is just too naive". Meanwhile, "members of her lordship's house … are right thieves, rogues and bastards". Who could disagree with any of that? Or put it any better while up late hammering vodka?
Lord Sewel is not guilty of personal hypocrisy. He did not break the informal 'back to basics' code that sexual and personal immorality are only pertinent tabloid fodder where you, as John Major did, make the upholding of moral fibre a part of your political agenda.
Instead his treatment has been justified on two arguments: firstly that, in general, as a lawmaker, he must uphold the laws of the land. This is basically the public probity argument – a phrase whose hushed gravitas serves to mask how broad and innately populist it really is. And secondly that, as the chairman of committees – which includes, but is not limited to, the privileges and conduct committee – he is not abiding by the standards of the system over which he himself presides. And it's true that a recent Huffington Post article, in which Lord Sewel celebrates the "new, stronger sanctions" to deal with misconduct makes for undeniably humorous reading given what we now know.
This is all a cover for setting free our worst moral pomposity. Law-breaking is not enough. No-one seriously proposes MPs or peers should be thrown out for speeding. MPs, for instance, need to be in jail for a year before they are chucked out the Commons. It is desperate and tedious to link this sort of behaviour to people's status as lawmakers. It allows the press carte blanche – which of course is what it wants – to moralise in whichever way it chooses.
And of course when this argument doesn't apply they just find another. When it is a footballer, model or actor doing cocaine, they are suddenly 'role models'. There will never be a subject of public interest for whom one cannot construct a flimsy excuse for hysterical sermonising and playground laughter.
The truth is Lord Sewel did not hurt anyone. He did not force prostitutes to sleep with him. He did not force anyone to do cocaine. The fact someone wishes to take drugs and sleep with attractive members of the opposite sex is entirely unsurprising and uninteresting. If they are married it might say something about their personal morality, but that fact has no bearing on their political morality, which is all that should concern us as members of the public. It also says nothing about their professional competence. It is simply none of our business.
But the shred of justification offered by his position as chairman of the committees, together with the news glut of mid-summer, has opened the floodgates. The tabloids and Twitter handle the bottom end – the jokes and innuendo. The BBC and the broadsheets handle the top end – the talk of public trust and the mechanics and duration of a standards committee case. And all of it based on the harmless activities of one man late at night.
It is exactly the same as the great ritual humiliations of the Tudor courts, half a millennia ago – from the bawdy public songs to the self-important constitutional contortions of the great and good. We can dress it up how we like, just as they did, but we really haven't changed all that much. All that's missing is the village stocks.